Declaration of Dependence: Teaching Patriotism in the Home


Citizenship may be more than a matter of birth or formal naturalization. For unless one truly promotes the common welfare of his country, he is an alien in the oldest sense of that term—that is, estranged from his fellows. Citizenship is a declaration of dependence upon one another, a recognition that only in unity is there strength and a security that is moral as well as physical. The natural expression of that identification and that security is patriotism.

As with many other attitudes, patriotism is easy to feign. Its usual expressions, such as saluting the flag or acknowledging the civil rights of others, can be little more than gestures. Yet, at their best, the outward manifestations of patriotic feeling can be deeply satisfying and binding symbols.

The heart of patriotism, however, lies in attitudes that are rooted in family relationships, for the family unit, in microcosm, undergoes most of the stresses which test the larger societies that make up a nation. The qualities that distinguish patriotism are all of the “homely” variety: respect, integrity, loyalty, self-sacrifice, consideration, fairness, appreciation, and devotion. No exhortation to respect his country’s flag can mean much to the youngster whose casual, permissive upbringing has left him with little respect for anything. And the child who equates freedom with indulgence may never understand the consideration for others that is fundamental to a workable democracy.

Formal study of the Constitution of the United States often begins in grade school, but the guarantees of personal freedom that the first few amendments detail should come as no surprise to the young student who has seen the Bill of Rights demonstrated and respected in his own home. In fact, several thoroughly enjoyable and informative family home evenings could be spent in relating the Bill of Rights to family responsibilities and relationships. If not all of these basic amendments are directly applicable to the home, a surprisingly large number of them are precisely meaningful in a family context. For instance, Article IV talks about the rights of privacy and personal possession which citizens of the United States should be able to count on. Using this as a starting place, parents might well involve their children in a frank discussion of the responsibilities as well as the privileges of having one’s own room—or even one’s own record player.

As one develops pride in being accountable for personal possessions, he becomes able to appreciate the property rights of others and, finally, to accept appropriate responsibility for the upkeep of the parks, roads, and national preserves which he holds jointly with his countrymen. One sure sign that patriotic lessons are being learned is family sensitivity to litter in the areas that are part of the public domain.

During recent years most of us have been made increasingly aware of the plight of minority groups, but, once again, we often need look no further than our own families to find instructive parallels that test our commitment to the unselfishness that is a hallmark of patriotism. Can we honestly say that the youngest child in our home is neither bullied nor shamed by his older brothers and sisters? It is an easy step from insisting that a small brother not tag along because he is “too little” and would therefore need special care, to discriminating against those apparently disadvantaged by race, sex, or age who need extraordinary consideration if they are to compete successfully. When we are able to make each family member feel equally loved and equally important—and we do this by acknowledging the smallest contribution and honoring the greatest need—we all develop a concept of loyalty and concern that will transfer easily from home to country. If, in the family, we have learned to be tolerant of difference and generous in judgment, we find it easier to work with others outside the family circle in democratic goodwill. Research in child development suggests that cooperation and concern for others are usually learned before children begin the first grade. If they are not learned in the home, they will be hard to find in the school yard, on the campus, or on the job.

In attempting to teach patriotism we may need to take our cue from an approach to the family exaltation program that usually proves to be helpful. The techniques of genealogical research have limited appeal to many youngsters until they become identified with the people about whom they are attempting to gather information. If one starts at the outer limits of what is available—trying to take the next step that no one considering a particular line has been able to take—progress may be so slow that only the most determined will develop a continuing interest in family research.

On the other hand, if we try to involve our children in genealogical activity by telling them about our own childhood, reading to them out of current personal histories, or demonstrating how to keep a journal that is more than a diary of trivial events, they usually become aware of their need for better research techniques—and committed to learn them—without having to decide whether or not they are “interested.”

Similarly, it may be difficult for a child to understand the suffering of General Washington and his men at Valley Forge or to appreciate the relationship of such suffering to the privileges we now enjoy, but having Grandpa tell what it was like to develop a homestead on marginal land in Idaho may be the vivid spark that illuminates and makes graphic the costs that an earlier generation paid for our present opportunities. We may need to work back to the times and concerns of the Founding Fathers by identifying similar concerns in our own ancestors. History gets its significance from what it means now and from people we know. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, will become more than a name and a slightly forbidding portrait if we feel linked by the passion for freedom which he shared with our own forefathers. It is important for a family to understand that Revolutionary heros had no greater commitment to freedom than their own grandparents who immigrated to the United States in order to enjoy the blessings of religious liberty. Freedom must be purchased anew by each generation and few days go by that do not exact some payment for the rights we enjoy and would guarantee to others.

In one sense patriotism may be as difficult to describe or isolate as the bloom on the rose. But when parents have nurtured their own understanding by diligent study, they can present the facts of our social and economic development with such insight that the whole becomes more than a sum of its parts. One cannot read the letters of John and Abigail Adams, for instance, without catching a sense of their own devotion to democratic principles, which devotion undergirds their most casual and prosaic exchange. These letters do not preach; they simply share a belief so profound that it colors everything they contain. Here are parents who are not self-consciously patriotic but so naturally and fundamentally pledged to democratic principle that it infuses everything they write about. Their approach is a persuasive model for modern parents.

Finally, since our profoundest identification is theological, our feeling for country and Constitution must be based upon an understanding of the special role which the United States was to play as the place in which the gospel could be restored. In a land “choice above all other lands,” which the Lord has “preserved for a righteous people” (Ether 2:7), we must not forget that we teach patriotism in its ultimate sense when we imbue our children with theological truths. Every dinner table conversation that reinforces our commitment to a gospel principle makes all who participate in it better citizens. We learn to love our country as we learn to love righteousness. A child who has a testimony of Jesus Christ already has a good basis for becoming a patriot.

A family activity that would be appropriate anytime during this bicentennial year would be a bringing together of the scriptures that identify America as a “land of promise.” Out of such a collective effort there will surely come a feeling of individual responsibility to help make these promises come true, for many of them are predicated upon the personal righteousness of the inhabitants of this land.

We arm our children against those who would demean patriotic sentiments—or even constitutional government itself—by demonstrating our own identification with those political, economic—and especially—religious principles upon which this nation is founded.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dale Kilbourn

[illustration] The rights of privacy and personal possession are expressed in the home by the responsibilities and privileges of having one’s own room.

[illustration] We need look no further than our homes to find parallels to the plight of minorities—like the youngest child in the family who may be bullied or shamed.

[illustration] Just as hearing grandma’s personal history can get a child excited about genealogy, so can understanding the Founding Fathers get him excited about his heritage.

[illustration] Children need to learn that the restoration of the gospel would have been impossible without the ground work of the United States government.

Robert K. Thomas, academic vice-president at Brigham Young University, serves as first counselor in the BYU Eighth Stake presidency.

Sister Shirley Wilkes Thomas, a homemaker, serves on the Relief Society general board. The family lives in the Oak Hills Second Ward, Provo Utah Sharon East Stake.